No Wave Versus New Wave, Round Two
Erase Errata are struggling to pull the weight of a whole movement, a movement that took over an entire city over 25 years ago.
Erase Errata’s newest record, their third album and their first on the Kill Rock Stars label, Nightlife, is the sole audible note that takes on the fiery political climate and the banal musical climate that truly follows in the footsteps of the revolution started by DNA, Mars, James Chance, and others. They are the first true second generation No Wave band.
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In 1978, No New York was produced by Brian Eno. It signaled the beginning of the No Wave movement, which sought to reject everything that New Wave stood for: decadence, commercialism, and sugary pop sensibility. No Wave was a music that could not be defined by genre; New Wave was easily definable. No Wave was cerebral and nihilistic; New Wave was visceral and dreamy. No Wave was a revolution; New Wave was an extension of prior popular sensibilities.
New Wave music wasn’t necessarily bad. Quite the contrary, it was a wonderfully gloomy style that captured kids and was more true and relevant than most popular styles of prior generations. But, coming off of the punk explosion of the mid- and late ‘70s, it seemed a docile next step. So the No Wavers took what looked to be the next logical leap. Atonality, performance art, anarchy, and a general eschew of melody and harmony was the intellectual extension of what punk had started in its raw and unbridled beginnings.
No Wave never caught on, save for a few people in New York and other metropolises who went on to form bands in the ‘80s. Without artists like Sonic Youth (and lesser known bands that ran with the No Wave influence), there would be no noise movement, no grunge movement (though honestly I could have done without that one), and the indie scene today probably wouldn’t be nearly as fertile.
Most people have never heard of No Wave, yet they can cite a dozen songs by the Cure, New Order, or Depeche Mode, all ardent New Wavers. But without the art revolt that No Wave provided to contrast the sugary gloom of New Wave there would be an incredible imbalance in music today.
Trends tend to cycle, and the No Wave/New Wave trend has circled back on itself, starting in the mid-‘90s with bands like the Rapture, the Faint, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, and Bloc Party. Later, with the less notable but more popular groups like the Killers and the Bravery, synth-pop gloom (better known as New Wave Revival) began to flourish again among the New York hipsters. Again, much of this music isn’t bad. I have been known to dance the night away to the Faint and others at some Sparks- or Pabst-serving bar (Misshapes anyone?).
But, just like the late ‘70s, there is an underground counterbalance to the New Wave of today. And it is possible that this counterbalance is even more important than the prior No Wave. New Order, the Cure, Depeche Mode, and many of the other first New Wave acts at least had an artful sensibility to them. They have sold a ton of records, but they were true to their sugary art. This New Wave revival has been commandeered by MTV and commercialized and commoditized into teeny bopper music. The Killers and the Bravery, both on major label Island Records, have more in common with Duran Duran, the original MTV teeny bopper, pseudo-New Wave act, than the much more respectable New Order or the Cure.
And another difference between the first No Wave/New Wave dichotomy and the battleground forged today is that there are political implications to this one. Not only is the fate of music on the line, but the fate of our democratic state in on the line. Twenty-five years ago the battle was almost purely artistic (though many of the No Wave bands were politically progressive anyway). Now, these second generation New Wave bands are mostly a danceable escape from a volatile political situation. I have no problem with this, we all need to be able to dance and forget, but to counterbalance this we also need bands to ground us in reality.
The first battle of the Waves was mostly art versus commercialism. And although this battle is also waged in the aesthetic realm, it is almost (and just as importantly) a battle of reality versus escapism.
But there is a bit of a problem. Unlike the fervent and passionate revolt of the late ‘70s No Wavers, there is no revolt being staged right now. There are dozens of bands rehashing New Wave, but there isn’t a No Wave counterbalance reaction, at least not one that embodies both of the qualifications of the new movement.
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Erase Errata’s new album is more straightforward than their 2001 magnificent debut, Other Animals, but it’s still a study in aesthetic and political progressivism. And, amazingly, they have an uncanny knack to take their explosive live, improvisational show and transfer it to record.
The opening track, “Cruising”, is a great example of what the Riot Grrl movement could have been had the bands involved been more experimental. Nothing against the Riot Grrls, though; I have always been a huge fan of the premium they placed on good, dance-y music and progressive politics, but Erase Errata seems to have pinned down the next step. Could we call it Post-Riot Grrl? Maybe that’s going a bit far.
“Cruising” starts out with an angular guitar and cowbell riff reminiscent of Gang of Four, but in pure Erase Errata fashion, quickly dives into chaos. The band has an undoubted ability to harness the confusion and bring it back down into coherent music. The track is a great example of how Erase Errata have commandeered the James Chance sound while still keeping with their own spin on the No Wave sound. It’s probably the track that most proves my theory that Erase Errata are a second wave No Wave band.
The third cut, “Another Genius Idea From Our Government”, is at once both a blatant repudiation of a broken government and a stunning piece of avant guitar improvisation. Erase Errata have never been shy about their political leanings. It is easy to see how the band can be as politically radical as they are musically radical with lyrics like this:
Spend $20 K on a listening device
No, the sounds on the street really fascinate me
Aim the satellite down from the penthouse bubble
Because we’re afraid of being robbed
Or catching something
While you’re too broke to not commit a crime
Your federal government knows that this is true
More people have to die
The album’s ninth track, “He Wants What’s Mine”, is a beautiful reminiscence of early Sonic Youth-style songs sung by Kim Gordon during the Evol years. The vocals are semi-spoken, hushed lyrics. Though, as said before, Erase Errata never rip off the sound of any other band, they manipulate it to make it their own.
The new album may be very No Wave and avant-garde influenced but it is a truly original record. Unlike many bands today that are taking cues from older bands, Erase Errata really know how to be influenced without having the influence take over their sound. Interpol sound just like Joy Division, Bloc Party sounds just like Gang of Four, but Erase Errata only suggest No Wave and Post-Punk while still keeping their unique take on the genre.